Saturday, April 30, 2011

Too much waist

Writing, you might think, is a pretty safe occupation. After all, you are at your desk most of the day and so more unlikely than most to a) catch infectious diseases from others b) walk under a bus or get knocked down by a car c) sprain your ankle on an uneven pavement etc, and it's always seemed pretty damn silly to me that I'm charged a huge whack on car insurance because technically I'm in 'the entertainment business', as if most of the time I'm driving round in fast cars after showbiz parties rather than cooped up in my room for a greater proportion of the day than most normal human beings.

But there are hazards. DVT, if you get too damn involved in your imaginary world and forget to move, and, as Margaret Atwood has pointed out, backache and long-term problems with posture. But, dear readers, the thing that is truly taxing your vain writer at the moment is LACK OF WAIST. Think about it: if you do housework or stretch to fill supermarket shelves or to write on a whiteboard, you are stretching your waist. If you walk for at least a portion of the day the movement of your legs pulls on the muscles around your waist. But if you SIT COMPLETELY STILL for at least five hours of the day you are not going to exercise your waist muscles, and so, even if you forget to eat, which is happening to me more and more at the moment, YOUR WAIST DISAPPEARS.

Next time you see me, dear readers, I shall mostly be wearing a burka...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Paring and realigning

After blogging so little recently (because I'm so immersed in my writing) I'm going to make you groan. You'll know if you've been following this blog for the past year that this time a year ago I began a new draft of my novel in progress, and, in the obsessive way of us writers, I kept seeing symbols of the redrafting process in nature all around me. Well, I'm doing it again.

After working on the novel from April to the end of August, and getting about half-way through, I stopped writing altogether to promote the reissue of The Birth Machine. As I've previously described, when I finally got back to the wip after Christmas and looked at it with fresh eyes, I realised that I could in fact be going a lot further with the redrafting, and so I went right back to the beginning again. (I'm about halfway through once more.) As I've said before, this is the piece of work I've had to work on harder than any other so far: it's been a question of paring (over and over) as well as some radical realigning, and I can't help but see symbols of this in the bird life in our garden:

Firstly, paring. In our garden we have the bird house above, and for some years running it was used by great tits for nesting. But last year, although we watched a pair investigating, to our disappointment none nested there. In the winter we looked inside: no wonder, there wasn't any room, the whole thing was choked with nests from the previous years! So we cleared it out (just as I've been clearing the dross from my novel) and this spring there are tits nesting there again.

Secondly, realigning. This January three huge trees at the end of our road and close by were felled, just as my latest draft came in for the chop. And the crows that used to nest there? Well, they've found themselves a new structure: under the eaves of the next door house...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Flash Mob Competition

I've been asked by blogger Fat Roland to let you know about the the Flash Mob Competition he's helping to run and judge for the Chorlton Arts Festival:

Stories of 500 words or less, theme and style completely open, entry free. Deadline for entries April 29th. A shortlist will be announced on May 13th, then the whole thing will be topped off with a reading night and awards ceremony on May 26th. 12 shortlisted entrants will get to read their story, and the winner gets their story illustrated and framed. Further details on the website here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jane Rogers and Rachel Genn

I haven't been going out much at all lately - for the first time in my life I don't particularly want to: when I finish actually writing for the day all I want to do is sit around tinkering with it in my mind and thinking about next day's episode: just waiting for bed, really, so I can wake up and start again...

But I couldn't miss the launch last night of a new book by Jane Rogers and a debate on the value of teaching creative writing with her ex MA student Rachel Genn, whose debut, The Cure, will come from Constable and Robinson in May.

Jane is a wonderful writer, and her new book, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press), looks fantastic. It' s set in a near future when pregnant women are mysteriously dying, and concerns a 16-year-old girl who, against the will of her parents, sets out to make a stand. You can read the rave Sunday Independent review on Jane's website here.

It was a Central Library event, and took place in Eliot House on Deansgate (where the library has relocated during the refurbishments) with its elaborate ceilings and stained-glass windows. The debate that followed the readings was interesting, Jane (who is Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam) expressing the view, which I share, that you can teach grammar and structure and plot and character-building, but you can't teach a basic, and essential, feel for language.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Edge Hill short story prize

On Wednesday I had a great evening at Edge Hill University, when the winner of last year's Edge Hill Short Story Prize, Jeremy Dyson, read from his winning collection, The Canes That Build the Cranes.

Just beforehand, the long list for this year had been announced, as follows below. It includes a full seven collections from my own publisher Salt Publishing, as well as collections by several other internet friends. Congratulations to all. (Thanks to The Short Review for the list; links are to reviews on The Short Review.)

  • Martin Bax - Memoirs of a Gone World (Salt Publishing). 
  • Alan Beard - You Don't Have to Say (Tindal Street Press).
  • Peter Bromley - Sky Light and Other Stories (Biscuit).
  • Jo Cannon - Insignificant Gestures (Pewter Rose Press).
  • Roshi Fernando - Homesick (Impress Books).
  • David Gaffney - The Half-life of Songs (Salt Publishing).
  • Vanessa Gebbie - Storm Warning, Echoes of Conflict (Salt Publishing). review coming soon
  • James Kelman - If it is Your Life (Penguin).
  • Andre Mangeot - True North (Salt Publishing). review coming soon
  • Jay Merill - God of the Pigeons (Salt Publishing). 
  • Magnus Mills - Screwtop Thompson (Bloomsbury). 
  • Graham Mort - Touch (Seren).
  • Nik Perring - Not So Perfect (Roast Books).
  • Susannah Rickards - Hot Kitchen Snow (Salt Publishing). review coming soon
  • Michele Roberts - Mud, Stories and Sex and Love (Virago).
  • Polly Samson - Perfect Lives (Virago). review coming soon
  • Helen Simpson - Inflight Entertainment (Random House). 
  • Fiona Thackeray - The Secret's in the Folding (Pewter Rose Press).
  • Tom Vowler - The Method and Other Stories (Salt Publishing). 
  • Susie Wild - The Art of Contraception (Parthian).

Friday, April 01, 2011

Reading group: Postcards by E Annie Proulx

Clare suggested this PEN/Faulkner-Award winning novel, Annie Proulx's first, which charts the fate of the Bloods, a Vermont farming family, in the years between 1944, when the elder son Loyal flees after accidentally (it seems) (and secretly) killing his lover, to the end of the eighties. The novel is structured around the postcards sent by and to the various characters over the years, in particular those sent back by Loyal to his family, never including a return address and poignantly revealing his ignorance of their fate.

Unfortunately Clare was unwell and unable to attend the meeting but sent a message that she had found the novel very atmospheric but also hard-going. Introducing the book in her place, Trevor said he had really enjoyed it as a depiction of the flipside of the American Dream and outlined the downfall of the family and most of the characters, since it turned out that four of the members present had however failed to finish the novel. John had given up after about thirty pages as he had found it dull and didn't feel it promised to go anywhere. Ann and Jenny had given up about halfway through, Ann because she had been very busy and Jenny because she said she just hadn't been in the mood for serious literature, but both suspected that if the novel had had the potential to grab them they'd have finished it anyway. Mark hadn't even tried, because he'd hated Proulx's second novel The Shipping News.

Jo said she'd disliked The Shipping News too, but she had absolutely loved this book. I said that my problem with the novel was that it was perhaps the first book I had ever read that left me feeling depressed rather than cathartically uplifted. One of my favourite books is The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry, which similarly deals with the exile and gradual degradation of a main character, who meets a similar tragic end, but I don't find that book depressing at all in the way I found this. There was something about the treatment of the situation in this novel, of the way that all of the characters end up dying with wasted lives behind them and forgotten.

Trevor and Jenny objected that that was just realistic: in real life everyone does end up dead! I said, but we don't all die with a sense of our lives wasted! Jenny said that she thought that a lot of people did reach the ends of their lives with a sense of waste, and she and Trevor said, and most people end up being forgotten. I said, But surely the point of the novel (as an art form) is to transcend that, to give significance to lives. Trevor said it's one point, but I said no, actually, it's the point. Even in life, we see significance in the lives of others even if they die not seeing it themselves, and the point of the novel surely is to focus significance and meaning. But somehow, to me, this novel fails to do that. In fact, as Jo pointed out, not all of the characters in this book feel that their lives were wasted. Daughter Mernelle and her husband Ray are saved by their marriage, and mother Jewell is basically emancipated by the events, yet there is something about the perspective of the novel which makes their lives seem wasted.

Jo said, but didn't I find the writing absolutely beautiful? Those wonderful descriptions of the landscape? I said, yes, they were stupendous, but I thought that this was perhaps the key to the problem: although the narrative is purportedly a shifting intimate third rather than omniscient, on the whole I felt those descriptions were made from an authorial viewpoint rather than that of the characters. I wouldn't say that the descriptions were exactly touristic, but the sense of appreciation of the beauty and grandeur was often at odds with the situations and psychic journeys of the characters. Jenny said, Yes, the farming characters would probably find the landscape pretty grim, wouldn't they? As well as that basic matter of the attitude to the landscape, there's also the question of the metaphorical language in which it's described. I did think it worked brilliantly for the psyche of the skin doctor who buys up Loyal's fields to build himself an outback retreat, and whose emotional focus is indeed the landscape to which he looks for succour but which overwhelms him:
There was too much to look at. Knotted branches. The urgent but senseless angular pointing of the tree limbs. Grass the colour of wafers. Trees lifting soundless explosions of chrome and saffron. Mountains scribbled maroon... 
However, I felt that such language was inapt for the farming characters who are revealed by the framing handwritten postcards as semi-literate. At one point, just after the murder, Loyal's heightened perception of the landscape was psychologically acceptable - He saw and heard everything with brutal clarity - but the terms in which he sees it didn't seem so: Evening haze rose off the hardwood slopes and blurred a sky discoloured like a stained silk shirt. (As John said: would he ever have even seen a silk shirt, leave alone readily think of one?) I felt, as a result, the chief subjects of the novel were the landscape and the author's appreciation of it, rather than the characters, who simply floated towards their inconsequential fates amongst the fine descriptions.

This is reinforced by the focus in terms of event. Of course everyone (in real life) dies, but the novel is so plotted that every character is propelled towards nothing more than their own death, which always ends on a note of waste, as in the description of the death of Mernelle's husband Ray. At the end he fails to recognize Mernelle (after their seemingly loving marriage) and in his mind's eye sees instead a figure from his childhood:  her slender back to him, her bare arms, the square of sunlight on the floor enclosing his own shadow. / 'Too bad we never did,' he said, and died.

John said that this novel had changed his previously firm view that the most important thing about a book is prose style, and Doug, arriving late and having missed the discussion up to this point, said independently that he thought the book was brilliantly written but basically tedious.

Mark (who hadn't read the book) asked, But surely it must be saying something about America, and people said what they thought it was saying: that technological progress had destroyed people like the Bloods. Unfortunately, though, most people felt that the book did a disservice to that message by being too tedious, and I felt it did a disservice to those characters by subsuming them to the landscape.

I said I found the framework of the handwritten postcards rather forced and artificial, not much more than a linking device for the episodic structure: it's not as if all of the postcards were in the bundle grabbed by Loyal when he's first on the run, and in reality many of those communications would not have been made on postcards but in letters. Most people, including even Jo, agreed. Jenny said the postcards had really irritated her, as she found them extremely difficult to read, which meant that she often lost their significance to the chapters they headed, and there were murmurs of agreement. Ann said, with reference to both the episodic structure and the linguistic style, that she wondered if Proulx's narrative mode was better suited to short stories than novels: she had read two volumes of her short stories and had found them wonderful.

Finally, I asked people what they had made of the sections appearing every so often and titled 'What I See' and set apart from the rest of the narrative by being printed in bold (which last Mark said he hates in novels, along with sections in italics). Most people were blank, and even Jo said that she hadn't known what to make of them. It seemed to me now on reflection that that they were intended as authorial intervention, but I hadn't previously been sure, probably because, as I said, there was such an authorial feel to the main, purportedly intimate-third narration.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.